“Go, girl, go!”
Victoria Danforth leaned into her horse’s neck as it broke out of the forest and drove toward the sea cliff at full gallop.
“Come on, Robin! The man is gaining!”
A green ribbon flew from Victoria’s head and her long auburn hair burst loose. She struck the sorrel’s flanks with the heels of her black leather boots.
“Give me more, my girl, just a bit more!”
The shining sea drew closer and closer. A wind that carried the bite of salt water stung Victoria’s nostrils. Face flushed by the wild ride, eyes glittering like a cat’s, she cried out a final time.
“All you’ve got, my beauty!”
And then she hauled back on the reins, turned the mare’s head to the left, sprang from the saddle, and hit the ground boots-first with a shout. The horse dug in all its hooves and tossed up mud and stone and grass. The cliff edge was only a few yards away when she stopped.
“Good, girl, that was lovely, that was grand!” Victoria stroked the animal’s neck and mane. Both horse and rider were panting. “What a gorgeous view! I’ll never tire of it.”
The brisk ocean breeze pushed back the auburn hair from Victoria’s face, bringing its deep red color out to the light, then turning it over and bringing back its rich browns. It plucked at her forest green riding coat, her white blouse, and the green silk scarf at her throat. The scarf brought out the emerald fire in her eyes.
“Miss Victoria,” came a man’s voice.
She had closed her eyes to better dream of sailing on a ship across the Atlantic to America or Canada. There is land no white man has ever seen, her brother Edward the naval officer had told her once. Mountains where no man or woman has ever placed a foot. Animals that are the stuff of dreams.
“Miss Victoria.” The voice was more insistent.
“If ye want to be there to greet your father, we must head back. Even though he’s using the coach he’ll still be at the manor house inside a quarter hour. The train would have arrived at Lime Street Station in Liverpool well over an hour ago.”
Victoria shook her head and laughed. “Old Todd Turpin, my highway-man, you are so particular about clocks and minutes. Is that because your great-great-grandfather’s blood runs in your veins and you know where every coach is on any road at any given minute?”
Todd, a short and slender man of sixty with a flat tweed cap who sat astride a black gelding, flushed. “I’m not related to Dick Turpin. I told ye that before.”
“Just as your mate Brendan Cook is not related to the famous sea cap- tain who also met an untimely end. Though Captain Cook was eaten, while Dick Turpin was merely hanged.”
“Sure, your mother Lady Elizabeth shouldn’t like to hear ye talking like this.”
“Well, she’s not here, is she? Or are you her spy as well as my guardian?”
Todd’s face flushed a deeper red. “I’m no spy neither.”
Victoria gave him a sudden savage glare. “Let us hope not, Old Todd Turpin, or I should have to challenge you to a duel. And you know how quick I am with a blade.” Seeing the startled look that sprang onto his face she laughed again, tossing her hair. “Oh, Todd, when will you ever get to know who I am? I wouldn’t hurt a finger on your hand. You’ve served our family since I was eleven, after all.”
“Well, but ye are not eleven anymore, are ye, Miss?”
Victoria swept up into her saddle, her long hair falling about her shoulders as she adjusted her black riding skirt and leather boots. “I may be eighteen but the eleven-year-old is still in there. Race you to Ashton Park.”
She leaned forward and whistled softly in her mare’s ear. The horse bolted forward, away from the sea cliff and down the path leading back into the forest of tall ash trees. Todd rolled his eyes and muttered, “Ah, dear Lord,” and dug his heels into his gelding’s sides, urging it after the mare. He knew he would never catch Victoria but at least he could keep her in sight.
The soaring ash trees, some two hundred feet high and hundreds of years old, flashed past on either side of Victoria as she and Robin hurtled along the track. She meant to get altogether out of sight of Todd Turpin, who, she was certain, reported to her mother all her goings-on, despite his protests to the contrary. Bending over the mare’s neck, she took a different path and galloped full out over a trail she could have ridden with her eyes closed. It was a shortcut she was certain Todd had never used.
Sure enough, she erupted from the ash trees five minutes before a wor- ried Todd emerged flustered from the main road through the grove. He saw her riding her mare slowly over the large green lawn that surrounded the manor house and called out to her.
“Ye little devil! Ye ought not to do that, Miss Victoria!”
Victoria smiled. “Do what, Old Todd Turpin? Outrace you?”
“Do some kind of witchcraft or spell or whatever it is ye did to vanish from the road and get here ahead of me!”
“Oh, I assure you I am still a good Christian girl, Todd, and all four of Robin’s hooves were planted firmly on the ground. We may have taken flight but we were never in the clouds. You just don’t know the ash grove like I do. Perhaps you don’t have a highwayman’s blood in your veins after all.”
She rode Robin toward the great house with its stone walls and tower- ing brick chimneys and hundreds of windows. Ivy grew green and lush over the entire back of the manor, the oldest part, completed in 1688. The newer wings, dating from the mid-1700s, were clear of growth and the stone shone, in some parts, a soft gray like pigeons, in other parts, a warm honey color, and in still other places, a ruby red that made her think of strawberries. She urged her mare onto the scores of flagstones that rimmed the house, and the horse’s hooves clicked and clacked as Victoria guided her to the front of the ancient and sturdy manor. There were a hundred and sixteen rooms and Victoria had been into most of them at least twice, including the ones her mother had locked up tight.
A cluster of starlings burst from the trees and darted over her head, making the horse rear, nearly throwing her off. “Shhh, my lovely,” she said, quieting the mare, tugging slightly on the reins. “It’s all right.” She stared after the birds as they raced for the far corner of the manor.
“Now what was that all about? Do you suppose they’ve seen hawks?” She glanced at the scores of windows. “Perhaps they saw a ghost. Old Todd Turpin always frightened me half to death with his stories of headless phantoms and Viking raiders swinging swords running with blood. The worst was the woman who burned to death when a candle set her gown on fire.” The horse nickered and Victoria patted her neck. “That really happened. That’s the trouble. A bride going up like a torch and no one could get her gown or corset off. The groom tried so hard and his hands were scarred forever from the flames. He never married again. She was a Danforth.” Victoria shuddered. “Why did I have to start thinking about that gruesome event? Servants say they’ve seen her burning and screaming in the room where it happened. One butler quit over it.” Robin nickered again.
“What is it, Old Todd Turpin?” she asked in a tease. “Do you wish to have another race?”
“I’m looking at my watch. Your father will be along in another few min- utes. I’m sure of it.”
“Well, then, I bow to the wisdom of your hoary head, and Robin and I shall proceed to the drive. Thank you.”
The sun had been in and out of the clouds all afternoon. Now a light shower fell softly on Ashton Park and its stone and ivy and grass. It glistened on Victoria’s green sleeves and beaded on Robin’s mane. The oak trees that grew around the old castle that was hundreds of yards away, its turrets just peeking above the treetops, glistened in the fall of the drops.
Victoria rode the mare over the front lawn to the drive and then toward the broad avenue through the gnarled and sweeping oaks, where she knew her father’s coach would soon come. As Victoria watched, the sun slipped back out and the oak forest and castle and avenue caught fire. The beauty of the moment overwhelmed her. Then into the flame of leaves and bending tree trunks, like a moving photograph, a black coach suddenly appeared pulled by two nut-brown horses in harness. Robin threw up her head and gave a short whinny.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s greet them.”
She rode up to the coach as it slowed, its driver cloaked in black with a top hat and scarf. He lifted the hat to her.
“Mr. Whitecross. How was the traffic in Liverpool?”